Sarkozy opens military base in Gulf

ABU DHABI: France's tricolour fluttered over a base in the Gulf for the first time on Tuesday as President Nicolas Sarkozy formally opened his country's "Peace Camp" military complex in Abu Dhabi.

During his brief visit, Sarkozy pushed ahead with talks to try to secure a lucrative fighter plane deal with the United Arab Emirates.

He revealed that France intends to submit proposals to world leaders at the G8 summit in July to try to end oil price volatility.

French and UAE flags were raised at France's first new overseas base since the end of the colonial era, in a ceremony attended by UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed al-Nahayan.

The base will host up to 500 troops at three sites on the banks of the strategic Strait of Hormuz across from Iran: a navy and logistics centre, a desert air base with three warplanes and a training camp.

Paris is seeking to raise its regional profile alongside Washington and London which also have Gulf bases, and is seeking defence contracts and nuclear energy deals.

The base is seen as reflecting France's tougher stance on Iran since Sarkozy took office in 2007, fuelled by concerns over Tehran's nuclear programme.

"Through this base -- the first in the Middle East -- France is ready to shoulder its responsibilities to ensure stability in this strategic region," Sarkozy told the UAE's official WAM news agency.

The Strait of Hormuz is a vital conduit through which 40 percent of the world's crude oil is shipped, and Iran has warned it could block the waterway if it is attacked.

On Tuesday Iran's Jomhuri Eslami newspaper reported that Tehran has sent six warships into international waters including the Gulf of Aden, just days after test-firing a new missile that could reach some parts of Europe.

Iran said the warships were dispatched to confront potential attacks on its commercial vessels and oil tankers by pirates off the Somali coast.

France has a handful of military bases mainly in Africa including its largest in Djibouti, which occupies a strategic position on the Gulf of Aden.

The new UAE base has drawn some criticism at home, with centrist politician Francois Bayrou arguing it raised the risk of France being unwillingly dragged into war.

France is a leading military supplier to the UAE, and the two countries are linked by a 1995 defence pact under which their armed forces chiefs meet once a year and their forces conduct around 25 joint manoeuvres per year.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan reported progress in talks on the possible purchase of French Rafale warplanes, a deal that could be worth as much as six to eight billion euros (eight to 11 billion dollars).

"It was discussed... I can say there has been positive progress on this issue," he told AFP.

France hopes the UAE can be persuaded to replace its fleet of French Mirage 2000 combat planes with 60 new multi-role Rafale jets.

Dassault Aviation has yet to find a foreign buyer for the Rafale, which can carry out interception and reconnaissance missions as well as nuclear strikes.

France also hopes to solidify its standing in the UAE's burgeoning nuclear market after signing a cooperation agreement last year that could pave the way for two nuclear reactors to be built.

An aide to Sarkozy said an order could be completed in September for at least two new generation nuclear reactors at a cost of between 25 and 50 billion euros.

Sarkozy, who arrived on Monday evening and left on Tuesday afternoon, said his plan for oil price stability will be unveiled when the G8 club of rich nations holds its next summit in Italy in July.

"We all need more energy price stability. High oil prices greatly destabilise the global economy," he said.

"Why not devise a deal between producers and consumers to present to the market over the general price direction... a price range that encourages investment but does not shackle the consuming economies?"

In the past year prices have swung between a peak of 147 dollars a barrel and a trough of 32 dollars. On Tuesday they were hovering around 60 dollars.